A place where we belong: CU psychologists seek solutions to help women succeed in STEM

Above: President Obama at the 2012 White House Science Fair 

Kristin Schwartz is exceptional.

Yes, she is good at her job, but as a female engineer she is also literally an exception in her field: a woman succeeding in one of the workforce’s last male strongholds.

“I’ve always worn it as a badge of honor,” said Schwartz, who graduated from the University of Colorado Boulder in 2011 with a degree in environmental engineering and now serves as project manager for the City of Thornton’s Infrastructure Department.

Like so many trailblazing women before her, Schwartz’s story carries meaning beyond her daily life. She represents the goal of researchers, politicians and professors who are all trying to help more women succeed in areas that men tend to dominate: areas like science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM for short.

As of 2014, women made up just 37.5 percent of freshmen college students with science and engineering majors, compared with 49 percent of men, according to data from the National Science Foundation. In engineering, men outnumbered women like Schwartz dramatically – making up 19.1 percent of all science and engineering majors compared with 5.8 percent of females.

This gender gap hasn’t gone unnoticed or underfunded by the government. More than $470 million dollars of the Obama administration’s 2015 budget went toward programs aimed at increasing the number of women and minorities in STEM fields.

This push to get more women in STEM has trickled down to Schwartz’s alma mater, where psychologists in CU’s Department of Psychology and Neuroscience have homed in on the topic as a key area of research.

The psychologists – who happen to be mostly women – are tackling the quandary from multiple angles, looking at factors like major selection, physical stereotypes and group dynamics to better understand the issue as a whole. Based on their findings so far, it is clear that many women who pursue STEM careers face challenges that most men do not. Inherent biases against women in STEM damage women’s sense of belonging and can seriously undermine their performance, the researchers say.

Still, there is hope. While men hold the overall majority in STEM fields, there are some areas where women are equal or dominant.

Physical and computer sciences, as well as mathematics and statistics, are some of the worst areas for women in STEM, but women are dominant in biological, agricultural, social and behavioral science.

Looking at STEM areas where women are more common provides clues for researchers about what attracts or deters women when it comes to selecting college majors and careers.

Graduate student Erin McPherson, who researches how major selection relates to women in STEM, believes that the prominence of women in areas like the biological and social sciences may have to do with certain values that women, in general, prioritize more strongly than their male counterparts.

“Women, in part, are raised and socialized to value these sort of communal things like helping other people and having a job that feels like it’s meaningful,” she said. “Even if you are a woman who’s really good at math, you still have absorbed all this stuff your whole life about helping other people and how important that is to women.”

Another factor that impacts major selection is access to STEM role models, McPherson said. Not surprisingly, women typically have less access to these role models than men do.

Schwartz credits her interest in engineering mainly to three people: a male high school calculus teacher, a male professor who served as her mentor, and her mother, who never worked or studied in STEM fields but encouraged her none-the-less.

Even as an engineering student, Schwartz still lacked access to many female STEM role models. Throughout her four years of college, she estimates that one quarter of her professors were women.

The third factor behind major selection is a trait McPherson calls gender determinism. This trait measures a person’s beliefs about the differences between men and women, and whether or not the differences are biological.

“What we find is that men believe that more than women, and also students in P-STEM believe that more,” McPherson said. McPherson calls the most male dominated areas within STEM fields P-STEM, the “p” standing for physical.

The final factor McPherson identified in her research is women’s sense of belonging – or lack thereof – in STEM fields.

According to a paper published by Professor Tiffany Ito, who oversees much of the research on women in STEM within the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, a lack of belonging can lead people to have poorer self-regulation, poorer cognitive performance and increased self-defeating behavior.

In classes where women may be outnumbered five to one, the sense of being “other” can be a serious issue.

Even if women overcome all of these value factors and select a STEM major, they remain vulnerable throughout their career trajectories. Researchers like McPherson call this phenomenon the “leaky pipeline.”

“The idea is, there’s all these stages in your pathway to eventually being in a career where you can sort of fall out, and if you do fall out or make a certain choice then it’s going to be a lot harder or maybe even impossible for you to end up in STEM later,” McPherson said.

Many women slip through this pipeline between college enrollment and graduation. While this doesn’t mean that women who select STEM majors will drop out of college, it does mean that they may feel pressure to change course.

In order to understand why women sometimes change from STEM majors to other fields, graduate student Sarah Grover studies group dynamics within STEM classrooms.

In Grover’s recent study, undergraduate students were grouped into teams. Some of the teams isolated one woman with three male group members, while others included all female members.

While all of the participants – undergraduate students at the university – were given tutorials prior to working in groups, one woman from each group, known as the “expert,” was given an advantage: tutorials with isometric problems, or problems where only the numbers changed but the questions remained largely the same.

Despite their initial advantage, expert women who worked with all male groups contributed less than those who worked with female groups. In addition, women in male groups had lower perceptions of their own performances, Grover said.

Several factors could be behind this outcome, the most compelling being stereotype threat: the phenomenon of being hyper-aware of stereotypes about yourself when you’re the minority in a group.

This may have caused anxiety, stress and discomfort among the expert women, as well as a fear of messing up and being called “the dumb girl,” Grover said.

Beyond simply causing anxiety, stereotype threat can interfere with people’s ability to complete complex cognitive tasks, she said. Essentially, all the energy women spend worrying about negative stereotypes men may associate with them puts a strain on their ability to cognitively perform.

Stereotyping, in general, is a problem that plagues women further down the pipeline, even after they begin successful STEM careers.

Postdoctoral researcher Sarah Banchefsky conducted two studies in which she used paid survey subjects through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk program to test how femininity effects perceptions of scientists among the general public.

After examining 80 photos of men and women, both male and female participants rated women with masculine traits as being more likely to be scientists, and women with feminine traits as more likely to be early childhood educators, Banchefsky said.

In part, Banchefsky’s research was inspired by the #ilooklikeanengineer campaign.

The campaign sprouted on social media after a woman was told she didn’t look like an engineer and that she was pretty enough to be a model. In response, a diverse group of women posted photos of themselves with the hashtag, “I look like an engineer.”

Projects like the #ilooklikeanengineer campaign, that show STEM women as diverse, multidimensional people, represent a step in the right direction, toward solutions, Banchefsky said.

Another recommendation, identified by Grover’s research, is to avoid isolating women during group work whenever possible.

In addition, before women ever enter a college classroom, there needs to be better education about what STEM careers actually look like, McPherson said.

Realistically, women selecting their majors could be achieving values of community and helpfulness within most areas of P-STEM fields, but there is a lack of education about these industries and the possibilities they can offer, she said.

“The goal is just sort of changing how people think about different majors or careers, because I think it’s true that almost any field – any career – you can find a way to do it that is communal and involves helping and working with people,” she said.

As for Schwartz, she keyed in on belonging as the crucial factor.

While Schwartz credits her intelligence, work ethic and strong personality with leading her toward success, she’s not sure she would have made it through college without the close group of friends who stuck with her throughout the engineering program, and remain close to her today.

It doesn’t necessarily matter if the group consists of men or women, Schwartz said, but forming a small community to do homework, brainstorm, and simply hang out with is essential.

“If you don’t find that group, I think it would be really hard for anyone to be successful – especially in the beginning because it is so difficult,” she said. “If you don’t have your group it’s literally next to impossible to graduate with a good GPA.”

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